by Ann Aguirre
368pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.33/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.72/5

Killbox, the fourth book in the Sirantha Jax series by Ann Aguirre, was released on August 31. The other books in this space opera series are Grimspace, Wanderlust and Doubleblind, in that order. There will be six books total in the series with Aftermath scheduled for September 2011 and Endgame for September 2012.

Please note that since this is the fourth book in a series, there will be spoilers for the first three books. This is a series that I would definitely recommend reading in order beginning with Grimspace (review).

After leaving Ithiss-Tor, Jax sends a message that she is quitting her job as a diplomat the first chance she gets. It’s not that she doesn’t want to do her part to save humanity (and any other species that refrains from hostile actions such as devouring the flesh of anyone it feels like eating) – but diplomacy has never really been her strength. Instead, she takes an apprentice jumper and begins teaching him how to traverse grimspace.

Daily life is not as safe as it used to be, and for some peculiar reason the Morgut appear to be targeting scientists. As more and more people are attacked by the deadly Morgut, Jax and her friends realize that there are serious consequences to destroying the corrupt Farwan, which at least had a large number of patrols dedicated to aiding those in trouble. The Conglomerate comes to the same realization and offers March a position as commander of a new armada – with free reign to be “creative” due to limited funding and the urgency of defending the universe. Although it is a lot of responsibility, it’s also impossible to refuse, and the crew begins gathering a force of mercenaries of ill repute as the last hope against the Morgut threat.

After the political diplomacy in Doubleblind, this book packs in a lot more action. In spite of (or perhaps because of) this, it actually took a little longer for me to get emotionally involved in Killbox than the previous three novels, although I was very much emotionally involved by the time it ended. The beginning is not at all slow, quite the opposite – I was just being impatient about wanting to see certain threads from the last book picked up. The previous installment dealt a lot with Vel, my favorite character in the series, and I was hoping to see some of the parts about him from it followed up on some more. Although it took a little while to get to them, there were definitely some great scenes with Vel that I’m now hoping to see continued in the next novel.

There’s lots of danger, excitement and battles, and Aguirre continues to maintain an excellent balance between moving the plot forward and developing the characters. At first it did seem as though there was more adventure and less of the character moments, but there were some – they were just mainly with March. Ever since the second book, I’ve much preferred reading about the friendships Jax has developed to the romance, especially her relationships with the alien Vel and the ship’s mechanic Dina, an exiled princess. By the time it reached the big cliffhanger ending, not only had there been some fantastic conversations with both Vel and Dina, but it had definitely also taken me on an emotionally harrowing journey. The last 50 – 60 pages made me cry not just once but twice (which rarely happens at all).

Another major highlight is the return of some characters we haven’t seen since the very first book, but the most rewarding part is the development of Jax herself. She continues to grow as a character and has changed so much since the first book. Even better, just how much she has grown is shown through her actions – we’re not just told she’s not the same Jax but we’re shown time and again that she has come a long way since the first book. It did get on my nerves a little that we were told she wasn’t the same so many times instead of just letting her deeds speak for themselves, but considering the story is told from Jax’s perspective, I don’t think it’s unrealistic. Someone who has undergone as much of a metamorphosis as she has over the course of this series is probably going to be continually amazed by the contrast between how she reacts now and how she would have reacted just a short time ago.

The writing itself has also improved since the first novel. While is still mainly straightforward and sometimes fractured prose as it’s told from Jax’s perspective in present tense, there were a couple of phrases and observations that struck me as lovely. The turmoil at the end especially was very moving.

It was somewhat annoying that March and Jax were apart yet again in this book. Although the reason behind it was logical, the fact that it keeps happening over and over again is making it feel contrived to me. It’s starting to seem like every book needs to have a new dilemma for keeping some tension in the romance so it doesn’t get stale before the final book.

Overall, this is a strong addition to the Sirantha Jax series. It has plenty of action and adventure, the characters continue to grow, and the writing has matured since the first book. One final word of advice: do have a box of tissues handy and be prepared to curse the book for ending where it does.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.

Read Chapter One

Other Reviews:

Reviews of other books in this series:

This month I bought one book for National Buy A Book Day. (I also decided to also make it “Buy Cookies and Caramel Mocha Day” at the Borders coffee shop – I hadn’t been to their cafe in a long time and didn’t realize just how delicious their cookies were but they were soft and chocolatey and really, really good. Maybe I need to make this a monthly holiday.) Every once in a while I try to go over there and buy a book or two that I know I want to read. We had a bookstore on our mall that I can’t remember not having there that closed down recently and I really don’t want the same thing to happen to our Borders!

Elfland by Freda Warrington

Somehow I had completely missed this book until I read Sarah’s review at Bookworm Blues. It sounds like it is just my type of book – a character-driven story with captivating prose. I had already decided I must read this when I looked for it at the bookstore, and then I found it and opened the cover and what do I see under the “Praise for Elfland” section?

Elfland is an absorbing and gripping journey into a world where the otherworldly shivers alongside us, unseen. – Storm Constantine, author of the Wraeththu Chronicles

Wraeththu Chronicles is of course one of my favorites ever for the same reasons this book sounded appealing to me. It turns out some of Freda Warrington’s other books have been published by Immanion Press, Storm Constantine’s publishing company.

Another Aetherial Tales novel, Midsummer Night, is coming out in the US in November. Each novel in the series is supposed to stand alone.

Elfland is an intimate, sensual novel of people—both human and Aetherial—caught between duty and desire. It is a story of families, and of Rose Fox, a woman born to magic but tormented by her place in her adopted world.

Led by Auberon Fox, a group of Aetherials—call them the Fair Folk, if you will—live among us, indistinguishable from humans. Every seven years, on the Night of the Summer Stars, Lawrence Wilder, the Gatekeeper, throws open all gates to the Other World. But this time, something has gone wrong. Wilder has sealed the gates, warning of a great danger lurking in the realm beyond them. The Aetherial community is outraged. What will become of them, deprived of the home realm from which their essential life force flows?

Rose Fox and Sam Wilder are drawn to the lands beyond the gates, even as their families feud over Lawrence’s refusal to do his duty. Struggling with their own too-human urges, they discover hidden truths that draw them together in a forbidden alliance. Only by breaching the dreaded gates and daring the danger beyond can they confront that which they fear most— their otherness—and claim their birthright.

Today I have an interview with two special guests, Danielle Bennett and Jaida Jones. They have three books published they wrote together: Havemercy, Shadow Magic and Dragon Soul. While I have yet to read Dragon Soul, which was published over the summer, I very much enjoyed both Havemercy (review) and Shadow Magic (review) for their character-driven storytelling and the humor woven throughout the various narrative voices. For more information on the authors and their books, visit their website.

Fantasy Cafe: How did you two meet and begin writing together?

Jaida: Dani commented on my livejournal to a post I’d made about Narnia. It always really frustrated me that Edmund, Peter, Lucy and Susan had to leave this entire life they’d lived behind, and apparently that was something that hit home with Danielle, as well. We started talking about books we loved, stories we were obsessed with, and characters we just couldn’t forget, and discovered we had a crazy amount of those things in common. My first reaction to everything back then was, ‘OK, let’s write together!’ whenever I was talking to someone I got along with. I just loved—and still love—collaborative writing. We tossed a few ideas around, playing the letter game (writing a story through letters, each of us in the voices of specific characters) for a while before we found an idea that actually clicked. And that idea, apparently, was giant metal dragons.

FC: I was surprised to learn that you wrote by one person writing a few pages and then handing it off to the other since I thought you probably each wrote two of the four main characters’ storylines. It seems as though each narrator maintains his own personality without feeling like there is a change in voice at all. How did you start this writing process? Did you try any other methods of collaboration before settling on this way of writing together?

Dani: We decided on the characters beforehand, but what we really wanted to do was make sure both of us had a solid handle on all four protagonists. While we had characters that each of us associated with specifically in the beginning, we talked about them and their dynamics and relationships enough so that we’d both feel comfortable writing all four of them. We didn’t ever want to feel as though we were out of character writing our own characters, and we also saw it as a challenge to make the writing style flow smoothly—so that people would have to say they didn’t know where one of us started writing and the other stopped. We also did a lot of editing as we went along, so that we found one specific voice—or rather, four specific voices—that could be consistent throughout the book.

Jaida: We did try the letter game beforehand, which was more of a ‘I write this character, you write that one’ style, but we just didn’t like the way it came out; it was too disjointed. That was probably a subconscious deciding factor in why we ended up tackling the book the way we did, like a written version of hot potato, just tossing the manuscript back and forth and keeping it flowing as quickly as possible. It forced us to be spontaneous, to think on our feet, and in the end—while it did make it a really hard story to edit—it’s what got us from start to finish. We were just so excited the entire time, and writing the book was a learning experience about what was actually going to happen in the book.

FC: Is there anything you can tell us about the next book you will be releasing? Is it going to be set in the same world as Havemercy, Shadow Magic and Dragon Soul or will it take place in a different setting? Do you have a planned number of books that will be in the series or any plans to write books outside of it?

Jaida: After a lot of back-and-forth—we’re awful with titles, and it usually takes us about as long to think up a finished, working title as it does to write the actual book—we’ve all decided on ‘Steelhands’ as the title of book four.

Dani: Obviously, if you’ve read the ending of Havemercy, the title itself is a pretty big spoiler!

Jaida: The book is another direct sequel to Havemercy, but it tells a different story than Dragon Soul does, and it gets back to our Thremedon roots.

Dani: There are a lot more stories we’d love to be able to tell, especially set in and around Volstov… So hopefully we’ll have the chance to some day! So far, ‘Steelhands’ is our last for-certain deal—so far, anyway!

FC: Until Dragon Soul was written, each of the four narrators had been male. Was there a particular reason for mainly writing from the perspective of men? Why do you always write from four perspectives within one novel?

Jaida: Since our writing is a collaborative effort, we always come at a book from the perspective of pairs—since we’re a pair, ourselves. Four seemed like just the right number to us when we started Havemercy, and we stuck to that number in the subsequent books because it worked so well for us to come to the same story from that many different angles. Havemercy was based on this idea of hazing in the world of firefighters, so that sort of testosterone-driven chauvinistic world was what we decided to build—we had to build it, first, but our hope is to slowly tear it down, as well. We had to set it up before we could blast it apart, which is hopefully what we’ve started to do with Steelhands

FC: Would you prefer to live in Volstov or amongst the Ke-Han? What is it about one culture or the other that appeals to you more?

Dani: We’re both obsessed with Asian cultures, especially Japan, which is part of the melting-pot hodge-podge that went into creating the Ke-Han landscape. We sort of thought of it as that when we were first creating it as a samurai-era Japan that was conquered by Mongolian raiders—and the latter subsumed the former, but also integrated much of its culture at the same time. When we were writing Shadow Magic, I think we realized we’d much rather live there because of all the delicious food we kept describing. It made us, and our then pregnant editor, crave dumplings!

FC: I can’t help it, I have to ask because he’s my favorite character so far: Will we get to see more of Caius?

Jaida: He’s our favorite, too! So we really, really hope so!

FC: Giant metal dragons have destroyed your library. You have time to get only five books from your collection. Which five do you run with before they’re incinerated?

Jaida and Dani: The Elephant Vanishes, by Haruki Murakami; Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie; The Real Live of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis; The Voyage of the Basset, by James C. Christensen, Renwick St. James and Alan Dean Foste.

FC: Which character is the most fun to write and why?

Jaida: The craziest characters are always the most enjoyable, so probably Rook and Caius.

Dani: Rook was particularly daunting to pick back up again in Dragon Soul, however; it was surprisingly hard to find his voice again, despite how specific it was. We kept having to ask ourselves, are we cursing too much? Are we not cursing enough? Why are you such an asshole?

Jaida: I think Rook was so much fun because he just says whatever he thinks; there’s no filter, and he can be that insulting, callous, horrible jerk I always wish I was—without fear of repercussion—whenever I’m having a really bad day. Caius, on the other hand, was just nuts, and it was so much fun trying to think of all the things he just wouldn’t think of, himself.

FC: In Jaida’s journal, when discussing her fear of first reviews shortly before Havemercy was released, she wrote, “If you’ve written the perfect book then what’s left to improve upon next time? What’s left to discover about yourself, and your writing?” What do you both feel you’ve discovered about yourselves and your writing between working on your first book and your third?

Dani: We’ve discovered that writing an outline always helps and we should probably do it more often.

Jaida: We’ve also discovered that the longer we take on a manuscript, the less our editor will want us to edit.

Dani: With all three of the sequels to Havemercy, the stories had been in our heads since the moment we finished the first draft—pre-agent, pre-editor, pre-publisher. But they changed a lot since that first inception, when we turned to each other and thought, sequel! I think one of the most important things we learned was how to let our ideas change and adapt and evolve into something totally different from what we expected they would be.

Jaida: We’ve also learned how to edit. Maybe.

Dani: Probably.

Jaida: We hope.

Thank you to both Dani and Jaida for answering some questions! Best of luck with work on Steelhands – I’m looking forward to reading it.

Shadow Magic
by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett
464pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.88/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.88/5

Shadow Magic is a loose sequel to Havemercy, the debut novel for Danielle Bennett and Jaida Jones. In June a third book, Dragon Soul, was released in hardcover. Dragon Soul continues the story of Thom and Rook from Havemercy, and also introduces two new characters.

Even though Shadow Magic takes place after Havemercy, it could work as a stand alone book. It does give away what happens with the conflict between two nations for the previous book though, so those who like to avoid any spoilers at all may want to avoid reading it first. However, I would have had no problem with starting with Shadow Magic and then reading Havemercy – it follows a completely different set of characters and these books are more enjoyable for reading about how developments unfold than what exactly unfolds.

Please note that if you are one of those people who do not want to know any details at all about the end of Havemercy, mentioning them is difficult to avoid when discussing this book so you will not want to read the rest of this review. If you are curious about these books but do not want to read this review, there is a review of Havemercy you can read instead.

The war between Volstov and Xi’an has come to an end. On the seventh hour of the seventh day of observing the loss of the war, the Ke-Han emperor traditionally committed suicide to atone for their national defeat, leaving behind his two sons. Iseul, the older son, must follow in his father’s footsteps by either ceremonially ending his life or assuming the role of Emperor for himself. He chooses the latter, so he and Prince Mamoru prepare to discuss peace with the delegation from Volstov – who arrive sooner than expected on the day of their father’s death.

The Esar of Volstov has sent nine delegates to Xi’an, mainly composed of magicians with a few soldiers thrown in for good measure. The members of the envoy become uneasy when Emperor Iseul declares his more personable brother as guilty of treason, and the prince goes into hiding. As the proceedings continue with very little progress made and they begin to see glimpses of a darker side to Iseul, the Volstovics become increasingly wary of the new emperor.

Like Havemercy, Shadow Magic captured my attention from the very first page and held it throughout with its character narratives. In this novel, there are two narrators from Xi’an, the prince Mamoru and his servant Kouje, and two from Volstov, the delegates Caius and Alcibiades. After only seeing characters from Volstov in Havemercy, the inclusion of two of the Ke-Han with a broader, more sympathetic look at their culture and how they were affected by the war was very welcome. Mamoru and Kouje were perhaps the more easily likable of the four main protagonists with their good intentions and their story’s focus on loyalty and a long-standing friendship.

However, Caius and Alicibiades were the more intriguing with their more humorous voices and propensity to get into trouble. Caius is a magician previously exiled for using his talent to wreak revenge. Alcibiades is a soldier who also has a talent but hates the fact that he has magical ability and does whatever he can to avoid using it. Their observations about each other were quite entertaining – Caius decided that he simply must be friends with Alcibiades, who thought Caius was a pest, and a crazy one at that:

One of his eyes was queerly discolored, and being looked at by him felt like you were having a conversation with two people, and both of them equally insane. [pp. 17-18]

After reading more from the perspective of Caius, it becomes clear just how apt this description is. Because of this, Caius was easily my favorite to read about – he appeared so carefree and easygoing most of the time with his main concerns focusing on fashion, gossip and breaking down the barriers Alcibiades built outside the door between their rooms. Yet he also had this love of danger coupled with the ruthless streak that lead to his infamous exile from Volstov that almost made him eerie.

There are a lot of other similarities to the preceding novel, particularly in its structure. The entire story is told from the first person perspective of four different men, one of which is another gay magician although there is no romantic involvement as in Royston’s part in Havemercy. Two of these perspectives overlap as they spend a lot of time together throughout the novel, and these two paired protagonists only very occasionally actually meet up with the other two. One of these two converging storylines is more serious while the in the other hilarity ensues. Throughout the novel, most of the story is told through character interaction and the observations of the various narrators, but at the end there is a lot of action and it concludes in a rush.

In spite of these parallels, it does not feel at all like a rehash of Havemercy. For one thing, it almost entirely takes place in the Japanese-influenced country of Xi’an instead of Volstov. Now that the war is over, there’s an absence of the metal dragons and the conflict is completely different since it is not Volstov vs. Xi’an. Also, each of the characters is very different from the previous ones. Alicibiades may seem a little similar to Rook since he doesn’t tend to care about social niceties, but he also was not nearly as obnoxious and was more understandable. He didn’t want to just gladly accept the people who almost managed to conquer his nation, and as a soldier in the war he was a lot closer to the situation than most of the delegates.

Although I really enjoyed reading Shadow Magic, I did feel that it had a weak point in the character of Iseul. Iseul seemed to be purely evil with no real motive beyond being born innately villainous, plus his particular brand of evil made him seem rather stupid. He turned against his own brother, a compassionate young man who never gave him any reason to do so. Plus the people of Ke-Han loved Mamoru, who did his best to make sure they were taken care of during the war, and no one who had ever met him was going to believe he was truly guilty of treason. It didn’t even ring true to the delegates from Volstov who spent merely one evening in his presence. He seemed to have no beneficial reason in the long term to act the way he did, although I suppose he had no concept of ideas such as being held in high regard for virtues such as kindness.

Also, I felt that Mamoru and Kouje’s story dragged at times. While I liked both of them and enjoyed reading their tale of loyalty and friendship, I much preferred reading about Caius and Alcibiades, who were so much fun to read about, especially when it concerned each man’s reactions to the other.

Even so, Shadow Magic was very readable with plenty of strengths. Its often humorous narrative told from the perspective of four very different and likable protagonists kept me turning the pages, and I also enjoyed getting to learn more about the Ke-Han. I’ll definitely be reading more by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: I bought it.

Reviews of other books in this series:

Other Reviews:

This week one new book showed up in my mailbox – the finished copy of one I already had received as an ARC back in May.

Married with Zombies by Jesse Petersen

The first book in the Living with the Dead series just came out September 1. The second book, Flip This Zombie, will be released in January 2011, and book three Zombie Whisperer is scheduled for publication in June 2011. The first chapter of Married with Zombies can be read on the author’s website.

Jesse Petersen and Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire, the newest recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer) are currently the guests at Babel Clash, the Borders speculative fiction book blog. They are, of course, discussing zombies.

A heartwarming tale of terror in the middle of the zombie apocalypse.

Meet Sarah and David.

Once upon a time they met and fell in love. But now they’re on the verge of divorce and going to couples’ counseling. On a routine trip to their counselor, they notice a few odd things – the lack of cars on the highway, the missing security guard, and the fact that their counselor, Dr. Kelly, is ripping out her previous client’s throat.

Meet the Zombies.

Now, Sarah and David are fighting for survival in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. But, just because there are zombies, doesn’t mean your other problems go away. If the zombies don’t eat their brains, they might just kill each other.


The winners of the 2010 Hugo Awards have been announced:

Best Novel: TIE: The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK); The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)

Best Novella: “Palimpsest”, Charles Stross (Wireless; Ace, Orbit)

Best Novelette: “The Island”, Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2; Eos)

Best Short Story: “Bridesicle”, Will McIntosh (Asimov’s 1/09)

Best Related Book: This is Me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This is “I”), Jack Vance (Subterranean)

Best Graphic Story: Girl Genius, Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm Written by Kaja and Phil Foglio; Art by Phil Foglio; Colours by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Moon Screenplay by Nathan Parker; Story by Duncan Jones; Directed by Duncan Jones (Liberty Films)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Doctor Who: “The Waters of Mars” Written by Russell T Davies & Phil Ford; Directed by Graeme Harper (BBC Wales)

Best Editor Short Form: Ellen Datlow

Best Editor Long Form: Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Best Professional Artist: Shaun Tan

Best Semiprozine: Clarkesworld edited by Neil Clarke, Sean Wallace, & Cheryl Morgan

Best Fan Writer: Frederik Pohl

Best Fanzine: StarShipSofa edited by Tony C. Smith

Best Fan Artist: Brad W. Foster

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: Seanan McGuire

Congratulations to all the winners! I am especially happy to see Seanan McGuire recognized as best new writer since I love her October Daye series.